Love your neighbor as yourself

Today’s gospel opens with a question from a scribe directed to Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” It is not clear whether the question is meant to trap Jesus. Earlier the Pharisees, the Herodians and the Sadducees have made similar attempts and failed.

The question is a favorite one in debates and discussions among rabbis. Perhaps, the scribe is merely curious to know the answer of the young and controversial teacher from Nazareth. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

This text has become the prayer of every devout Jew each morning upon rising and each evening before sleeping. Referred to as the Shema (meaning, hear), the prayer is a daily reminder of the covenant and its obligations.

After quoting the great commandment from Deuteronomy, Jesus continues with a verse from Leviticus (19:18), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then, he adds, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” In saying this, Jesus teaches that love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. Though set in a sequence, they are like two sides of the same coin.

In fact, they sustain each other. Love of God is proved in love of neighbor. John would later assert, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1Jn 4:20)

Allow me to focus our reflection on the theme of love of neighbor. While it is true that love of God is the foundation and source of love of neighbor, the practice of the command of love is made concrete in our relationship with others. To love God may be most demanding (with all your heart, soul and strength) but it is also most acceptable because God is by nature good and loveable. Instead, to love our neighbor is more difficult and challenging because he/she is naturally flawed and imperfect.

When I was a young seminarian, I found it difficult to understand how we can love everyone. Is this really possible? We know that there are certain people we simply cannot stomach, however hard we try. We do not like them, their character, their ways, even their looks… and we can’t help it. How can we love them?

I finally found an answer when I read an article by Fulton Sheen, where he clarified that God’s commandment is to love, not to like, our neighbor. To like is something emotional and instinctual, a feeling of which we have no control. Instead, to love is an act of the will, something we have control of and have the freedom to exercise. God does not ask us to like everyone (which impossible), but to love everyone (which is within our power to do).

I may not like someone, but I can love him by respecting him and doing good to him. I may abhor my enemy, but I can love him by not taking revenge and by forgiving him.

The Italians’ way of saying “I love you” is “Io ti voglio bene” (literally, I wish you well). At first, I thought the expression is too prosaic, even too platonic, for Italians who are renowned to be among the world’s most romantic lovers. But that is exactly what love is: to will the good of the beloved. More than just some warm romantic feeling, love is an act of the will that seeks the good of the other.

God commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. How considerate of God to ask that we love our neighbor, without having to like them. In the same way that we love ourselves without liking ourselves. In truth, there are many things we do not like in ourselves: our defects, our weaknesses, our embarrassing secrets… And yet how we love ourselves! We take good care of our health, we avoid whatever can harm us, we choose the best for ourselves…

Loving our neighbor starts by doing good to them, never mind our feeling. “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Lk 6:27-28)

When we are able to do this, we are truly children of the Father in heaven and become like him, who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Mt 5:45)*

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